chapter  3
38 Pages

Feminisms, Nationalisms, and Identities: Gender and Dissent

In 1998, in response to the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland, the electorate of the Republic of Ireland voted in a referendum to relinquish its territorial claim on the whole island, previously enshrined in Articles 2 and 3 of the constitution. In effect this marked the end of the much commented on disjunction between law and reality in Ireland. That disjunction was both a result of a history of resistance to colonial law and of the postindependence southern state‘s institutionalization of aspiration rather than achievement as the condition of nationhood, most prominently in Articles 2 and 3. This sense of nationhood as a state yet to be achieved displaced dissent into the realms of metaphysics or designated it as alien, at odds with the Irish soul. When political violence in Northern Ireland began to threaten to destabilize the Republic, a gradual disengagement and occasional deconstruction of this version of the Irish nation moved from the intellectual margins to the “mainstream” understanding of history, in literature and in political institutions. For a long time, however, trading in “the exhausted fi ctions of the nation”1 as poet Eavan Boland put it, was not an empty aesthetic exercise, but the form and content of political legitimation for the state. Modernist fi ction made the disruption of that trade almost defi nitive of its relation to Ireland. The fact that the literature that could be assimilated to that legitimizing project became the central tradition of Irish poetry should not be surprising in the context of contemporary suspicion of the political motivation behind canon formation. Irish nationalism is not, at this stage, simply an insurgent or anti-imperialist nationalism. It has also been, since 1923, the dominant ideology of a state and the very disjunction between the idea of the state and the image of the nation was part of that state’s defense mechanism against the consequences of partition. In an important essay in 1991, Clair Wills argued that “the motherland trope . . . in all its guises, is like a pin which connects sexual stereotyping with political and cultural domination of the Irish”2:

merely to assume the role and function of poet depends on a certain stance in relation to this trope of motherland. For the representation of the Irish land as a woman stolen, raped, possessed by the alien invader is not merely one mythic narrative among many but, in a literary context it is the myth . . . The trope functions not only as the means by which the poet can lament the loss of the land but also, through his linguistic embodiment of it, the means by which he may “repossess“ it. The structure through which the poet obtains this mandate is complex, but its critical ingredient is an already poeticised (mythic) political discourse of the nation which enables the poet to act as spokesperson for his community-“public voice” of his mute and beleagured “tribe.”3